critical thinking

Stories from the Field, Part VIII, Beware the Pseudoscience

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with (and in return, how they are impacting me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Image credit: The Daily Beast

Image credit: The Daily Beast

My work with Baxter Academy students has been exhilarating. I am teaching an elective mindfulness class there I call Wise Minds in which I have twelve students for an hour a day, four days a week. This allows for some serious in-depth exploration of the topic. Furthermore, they have chosen to be with me, which creates a different vibe than those who were forced to endure me in the classroom per their teacher's orders. That said, I don't get off the hook easily.

I made the mistake of offering data that seemed like a fun way to start a discussion about the impact of technology on our attention:

 "According to the New York Times, humans in 2015 are said to have the attention span of 8.25 seconds, which is less than 12 seconds in 2000, and the 9 second attention span of a gold fish."

That's interesting, I thought.

They immediately tore it apart: 

"I want to know how they are measuring that data. How do you even measure the attention span of a goldfish?"

"Perhaps comparing our attention to a goldfish doesn't mean anything because we, as humans, had a lot of predators, so of course we are easily distracted. Goldfish are human bred, I think, and so they don't have any natural predators to look out for. It is just trying to make us think our attention spans are too short, but really it's not a useful comparison."

And my favorite:

"I'm sorry to say this, but that's click bait. It sounds like pseudo-science made to support some pop psychology silliness."

I loved it!  They were right! I went home and immediately tried to figure out where those numbers came from. Numbers the New York Times, The Telegraph, Time Magazine, and countless other news sources and blogs quoted. They cited a Microsoft study, which I then read. Lo and behold, this statistic did not even come from their work, as they cited a website called Statistic Brain for these particular numbers. When I went to that website, there was no evidence of where they got the data. I wrote them an email. I am still waiting to hear back.

To these students, I say, bravo. When I taught English in DC, this was exactly the kind of work I was trying to get my students to do. I wanted them to be critical thinkers and media consumers. I like using research and science as a way of talking to students about human phenomena, but I need to be careful about mindlessly feeding them "facts" without investigating their validity. Science is still important to me, and I like that it helps us universalize our experience and understand ourselves in a larger context of humanity. But it's not everything.

In the end, we found a rich discussion by observing and reporting on the experiences from our own lives. We talked about our own tendency towards patience and impatience, and how technology may or may not contribute to that. We thought about the impact our phones and computers has on our well-being.

And the next day, I had this exchange:

"Your classes are like horoscopes," one tenth grade student declared as she came in the door.

"Oh?" I responded, "How's that?"

"It just seems like each day applies to my life! Take yesterday. We were talking about patience in class, and how impatience can hurt us. Then, the next class I had writing, which I am usually impatient with because I find it very tedious. But this time I just realized it and was able to go in really calm."

I grinned, "Yes, the hope is that you can apply this stuff to your life. Believed me, I use it every day."